|Looks like this was shot in Hadar HaTorah. Features a nice Matisyahu performance and a guest shot by Charlie Buttons. (No Yechi action, either.) Nice.|
Category Archives: Matisyahu
This week’s David Klinghoffer’s Forward column The Disputation deals with the Matisyahu issue and with Chabad in general. Here, for my money (and ego) is the money quote:
For centuries, the role of the Jewish people as a "kingdom of priests"
(Exodus 19:6) calling humanity to the worship of the one God was
suspended. In our day, thanks to the growing interest of non-Jews in
Judaism, that has started to change. Matisyahu may be the best example
of a Jew ministering in this priestly role on a mass scale. His
efforts, however, have won him Jewish detractors, who prefer that Jews
remain anonymous or irrelevant.
Take, for example, the sniping from the peanut gallery coming out of
the consistently sour but readable blog FailedMessiah.com: "What
Matisyahu does is unseemly. Few, if any, significant poskim (rabbinic legal scholars who rule on Halacha) would approve. But what bothers me more is blatant trading on Kaballah and Hasidut to
make money. That this does not bother mainstream Chabad may be because
this is what mainstream Chabad has itself done for years."
Indeed, Chabad’s efforts have earned the movement its share of enemies.
The rabbi at the Reform temple where I grew up used to speak out
against the local Chabad emissary; the competition made him nervous.
And in the Orthodox world, a few can’t forget the imbroglio in the
1990s in which some followers of Chabad’s late spiritual leader, the
Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, let it be known that they
expected he would return and reveal himself as the Messiah. Thankfully,
that fever dream has subsided.…
I thank Klinghoffer for quoting me. Still, Klinghoffer is wrong on many counts:
- I am certainly not opposed to Jews being a light onto the nations in an active fashion. What I and many other critics of Matisyahu are concerned about has been clearly stated on this blog. Being a light onto the nations or a need to remain "under the radar screen" is not one of them.
- Klinghoffer ignores the fact that poskim do not allow what Matisyahu does, and that poskim from Chabad, while the Rebbe was alive, told musicians they could not do what Matisyahu is now doing.
- Messianism has not gone away, as even any casual observer of Chabad knows, It is dominant in Israel, France, the FSU, and in Crown Heights. Matisyahu himself is a messianist.
Klinghoffer brushes away these facts just as he brushes away Marvin Schick’s concern about the lessening religious standards in Chabad, something there is much proof for. He also makes it appear as if Schick is an enemy of Chabad, something that is absolutely false – although, to be fair, Klinghoffer may not know this.
How can Klinghoffer make claims that disregard fact? I’ll give you my personal answer. Klinghoffer is a devotee of Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the maverick Orthodox rabbi shunned by many in mainstream Modern Orthodoxy and by most in the haredi world. Lapin has made a career (outside of his business involvements, which have been, in some cases, highly questionable from a legal standpoint) of supporting right wing political causes (he is one of Jack Abramoff’s rabbis) and of "kashering" the religious and extremist right*. To do this, one needs to adopt an ends justify the means theology, which is just what Lapin has done. And this theology drives his disciples, as well.
Several years ago, WorldVision launched a campaign to aid those hurt by suicide bombing and terrorist attacks in Israel. The radio commercial had bombs exploding, sirens wailing. Where was the money going? To the West Bank and Gaza, and only to Arabs. I asked WorldVision why. A spokesperson responded by saying (I paraphrase) that WorldVision helps the most at need. Jews can take care of themselves. The Arabs cannot. I asked about the morality of using terror attacks against Jews to raise money for Arabs. Terror hurts both sides, was the response.
The Salem Radio Network had a joint campaign with WorldVision to fund this very project. Ads for it ran during both the Dennis Prager and Michael Medved shows. In effect, both shows raised money for the extended families of suicide bombers. I contacted both hosts and explained the problem. Both wanted details that involved many hours of research. I did that research (without pay) and sent the information to Prager and Medved. Prager** banned all ads for that WorldVision campaign from running during his show. But what did Medved, whose rabbi-guru is Lapin, do? He increased the ads and began endorsing that very WorldVision project. Why?
I believe for the same reason Klinghoffer can so easily ignore fact. The ends justify the means.*** It wasn’t worth damaging his (and Lapin’s) relationship with the evangelical-owned and operated Salem radio over the WorldVision project, especially because WorldVision is a major powerhouse in the evangelical world and is, not surprisingly, a major advertiser on Salem stations.
Klinghoffer is a follower of Lapin. To the extent that his article reflects that relationship, it is Lapin – and his theology – that is to blame. The same is true for Medved and WorldVision.
If well-meaning Chabad supporters would focus on keeping Chabad within halakha, instead of kashering every instance of deviation from it, Chabad would be in much better shape, and blogs like Failedmessiah.com would not need to exist.
*Evangelical and other Christian Fundamentalist theology, as it impacts the public square, is not necessarily incompatible with Judaism any more than it is automatically compatible. For example, while Judaism frowns on abortion, it does not ban abortion outright and allows (and sometimes mandates!) abortion for a host of reasons related to the physical and mental health of the mother. This is why many poskim (like some of those ignored by Klinghoffer) do not support the anti-abortion movement. Lapin goes beyond this position to, in effect, kasher all but the most blatantly anti-Jewish positions of evangelicals.
**Yes, it is true that Prager is also a supporter of Chabad. But Prager is not Orthodox, and his views on halakha are not close to Orthodoxy’s.
***By ends in this case I mean ideological ends, not financial gain. In other words, in this case the ends are "ohr lagoyyim" and the means, Matisyahu and Chabad. Rabbi Lapin considers ohr lagoyyim to be a cornerstone of his public work and ideology/theology.
The Algemeiner Journal, a Chabad mouthpiece published in Brooklyn, has a piece written by a Chabad shaliach, Rabbi Levi Brackman, defending Matisyahu:
is a fundamental difference between the Kabbalistic and the
non-Kabbalistic views of Judaism. Up until the French Revolution in
1789, society was divided into three groups: the church, the
aristocracy and the peasants. In the terminology of the post-modern
French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the landowners and the
church were the centre and the peasants were the periphery. The two did
not mix. Education, money and power were restricted to the elite; the
peasants enjoyed no such privileges. After the French Revolution, the
periphery was also given some of the privileges that were previously
the exclusive right of the centre. With this came the emancipation of
the Jews. Although the landowners and the educated were still regarded
as the centre, the difference now was that peasants had the possibility
of entering this exclusive domain.
post-modern era, according to Derrida, was a time of “deconstruction.”
All things were seen in pairs, one superior to the other: rich and
poor, educated and ignorant, powerful and powerless, etc. The
deconstructivist view is that rich is not necessarily superior to poor,
in fact, being poor can be more advantageous. Seen from this
perspective, poor is the new centre and rich is the periphery. Derrida
goes one step further and says that hierarchy should not exist at all;
rather, all boundaries between centre and periphery should be
society is a deconstructed civilization in many ways. Whereas in the
past women were seen as inferior, today they are often regarded as
superior to men. Similarly, modern human rights laws have ensured that
the views of vulnerable minorities are respected and listened to.
Judaism, in general, does not deconstruct boundaries. According to this
school of thought, the centre should be distinct from the periphery.
Here we have the concept of ‘enclave Judaism,’ which clearly marks out
the boundaries between the holy and the profane. The fact that this
type of Judaism disagrees with Matisyahu’s style of music and choice of
audience is no surprise, for it regards the mixing of the centre with
the periphery as an obvious desecration of G-d’s name.
Kabbalah as interpreted by many Chassidic schools, however, adds a
deconstructive element to Judaism. To be sure, Kabbalah (Jewish
mysticism) and Halacah (Jewish law) are two parts of a single Torah,
mirroring each other in perfect seamlessness, like a body mirroring a
soul. Halacah is the pragmatic counterpart of mystical Kabbalah. The
authentic masters of Kabbalah and Chassidism were great masters of
Halacah as well and saw halachic boundaries not as limitating, but as
structural patterns reflecting the energy zones of life and the cosmos.
Yet within the halachik system itself, the Kabbalists revealed a new
light, often one that deconstructs bouandries, merging the finite and
the infinite in an extraprdinary fashion.
Kabbalah teaches, for example, that in the messianic epoch women will
be perceivably greater than men, because inherently feminine energy is
superior to masculine energy. The Kabbalah also deconstructs the
boundaries between the physical and the spiritual. Whereas
non-Kabbalistic Judaism holds spirituality superior to physicality, the
Kabbalah maintains that in the final analysis the physical is more
potent, the body deeper than the soul.
principle is simple: the higher the source the lower it reaches. Esau
is thus seen as having a higher spiritual antecedent than Jacob. One
who meditates may reach lofty spiritual heights; however, the essence
of G-d will remain elusive. Ironically, Kabbalah teaches that the only
way one can connect to the Divine essence is through the physical.
Spiritual levels are by definition constantly cognizant of their
dependency on their sources. Conversely, physical objects project auras
of egocentricity – they seem to depend on nothing other than themselves
for their existence. This aura is, in a sense, parallel with the nature
of the Divine essence whose existence is truly independent .
According to the Kabbalists, the ex nihilo nature of the creation of
the physical universe necessitates direct intervention of the Divine
essence. It is this intervention that allowed the physical to assume
its egocentric aura. Thus, there is a unique similarity – at least in
terms of language – and connection between the physical and the Divine
sheds light on the Jewish phenomena of Mitzvoth, which are mainly
physical acts rather than mystical meditations. It is precisely through
the physical act of a Mitzvah that the most profound connection with
the Divine is forged. In fact, according to a Midrash  – adopted by
the Kabbalists – the purpose of creation was for humans to unveil the
Divine essence found in those parts of the universe which are most
devoid of G-dliness . This stresses the inherent value of the
mundane and unrefined aspects of the universe – where the mission is
most intense .
completely deconstructs the boundaries. What was once the centre –
without the Kabbalistic explanation – can now be seen as the periphery
and vice versa . Thus, by bringing a G-dly message to the intensely
profane one in a sense is fulfilling the purpose of creation in the
most profound manner possible. Indeed it is this ideology that has
caused me to choose to live in secular Evergreen, Colorado rather than
in a Chasidic enclave of Brooklyn, New York.
his own admission, Matisyahu is being guided by the Chabad School of
Kabbalistic thought. Thus, as long as he adheres to Jewish law and does
not get carried away with stardom and the narcissistic celebrity
culture of modern-day America, his music may be considered, in my
opinion, a sanctification of G-d’s name.
See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, John Hopkins, (1976).  See
Maimonides, Hilchos Daeos, 1:3.  For a more in-depth analysis of
post-modern parallels with the Chassidic School of Kabbalistic thought,
see Naftali Loewenthal’s forthcoming article, “Jewish Mysticism in a
World of Change: Pre-Modern, Modern and Post- Modern Perspectives,”
which in part inspired this article.  Bamidbar Rabba, 13:6. This
Midrash was quoted most frequently by the seventh Lubavicher Rebbe,
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn.  For a complete treatise on this
subject see Faitel Levin, Heaven on Earth, Kehot Publication Society
(2002).  Inherent in deconstructing boundaries is the danger of
losing all sense of limits, and thus raising the possibility of further
concealing the Divine essence. To forestall this possibility the
Halacha (Jewish law) must be steadfastly adhered to at all times.
This is the same argument made by the followers of Shabbatai Tsvi and the Frankists to defend their heresies. While Judaism has, in more recent times, had a concept of descent for the purpose of (later) ascent, this never entailed the intentional descent into base physicality or sin – except in the theology of the Sabbatians and Frankists. As for the rest of Rabbi Brackman’s hogwash about deconstuction and halakha, the theology Rabbi Brackman represents is not Jewish – at least not Jewish in a way Jewish legal scholars for millenia would recognize or endorse. And that speaks volumes about today’s Chabad and its minstrel prophet, Matisyahu.
The Jewish Week has an article about the racial controversy surrounding Matisyahu. I’ve made the point before that much of this idea that Matis is being singled out for approbation because he is white is foolish. He’s being singled out because, for the last 100 years, white artists have taken black artists’ songs and released them to white audiences – often without acknowledgment. For much of this time, these black artists were denied both public acclaim and money, while the Pat Boones of the world became rich and famous at their expense.
If Matisyahu were a more substantial act, and if Matis was generous to those black artists he mimics, perhaps things would be different – but Matisyahu is not generous in this regard, and his act is far from substantial.
This history is largely ignored by those who attack Matisyahu’s critics.
The Jewish Week quotes Murray Forman, a professor of communication studies at Northeastern University who has written extensively about reggae and hip-hop:
But, Forman added, no discussion of Matisyahu — or any other artist, for that matter — would be complete without mention of a social force mightier than race and religion combined: money.
“At some point we also have to recognize that Matisyahu is also a product of culture industries,” he said. “Not only he benefits from adopting reggae, but the music industry benefits as well.”
In Matisyahu, he said, the industry found an unlikely and attractive musical vehicle, one that could deliver reggae music to an audience, predominantly white, that would otherwise have most likely remained uninterested.
“Matisyahu is being promoted and marketed to a particular audience,” Forman said. “There’s an industry alongside this that says this is where we’ll meet the largest audience and generate the greatest revenue. And I think it’s folly for anybody to overlook the industrial role here.”
As proof of sorts, Forman mentioned that the industry itself refrained from labeling Matisyahu’s music as reggae. His albums are listed under the “Alternative” category on iTunes, and “King Without a Crown,” his biggest hit, reached No. 7 on Billboard’s rock chart, and not the R&B and hip-hop chart, which monitors reggae musicians as well.
To be sure, other artists who have begun as marketing schemes have since risen to prominence. Eminem, to cite the best example, got his first break for being the first white rapper, became successful for appealing to a large white audience otherwise indifferent to hip-hop and went on to become one of the genre’s most esteemed musicians, regardless of skin color.
Given the recent ride he’s on, Matisyahu may be moving in that direction. But Forman is skeptical.
“Eminem is a superior rhyme artist, he’s a skilled producer, he can freestyle, and his style is quite literally unparalleled,” Forman said. “He’s much better than Matisyahu is in his respective category. Matisyahu will never be at the top of the reggae skill chart. He’ll never trump even half of the artists we haven’t even heard of. He is not a superior artist.”
And that is exactly the point I’ve been making all along.
New York Newsday savages Matisyahu:
Because he employed only a sparse trio of guitar, bass and drums, the greater part of the burden fell on Matisyahu’s voice. And sadly, he wasn’t always up for the challenge. He struggled to hit the high notes in "Fire of Heaven/Altar of Earth" and failed to convincingly sell the clunky love song "Unique Is My Dove." Trickier still were the up-tempo numbers. Matisyahu has a nimble tongue and a fondness for speedy, tongue-twisting runs, but he has a tendency to hit the syllables like an understudy nailing his marks: with precision, but without any real sense of ownership. More troublesome is his insistence on employing a fake Jamaican patois, a device that only emphasizes that he is not from Kingston. Lacking the gruffness of dance-hall giant Elephant Man or the sweetness of reggae vocalist Sugar Minott, Matisyahu mostly comes off as a well-meaning mimic.
The same goes for his band who, while certainly proficient, were prone to bouts of unnecessary showiness. Their attempt to append a dub break to the end of "Exaltation" was listless and forced, and their occasional detours into meandering jams (the most unbearable of which ended in a drum solo) were ill-advised. In the end, the songs felt strangely starched, aping reggae’s cadence and loping bass lines but lacking all of its glorious dankness and mystery.
The moments when things did lock into place were genuinely exciting. In "Jerusalem," while the group worked a slow, surging groove, Matisyahu’s voice fit snugly between the whirring of bass and drums. "Close My Eyes" built to a gloriously frenzied conclusion, with the band consumed by a manic, frenzied jam and Matisyahu spinning giddily on one foot, grinning and raising his hands to the sky. If he can only figure a way to funnel that ecstatic personality into his songs, he might be onto something.
Sure. He could sing Yechi.
"Youth" might be refreshing, even inspiring, if Matisyahu’s delivery
made up for his material. But his voice is reedy and strained, and his
accent shifts from Caribbean to Hebrew to generic American with no
discernible connection to the songs.
The band wanders out of reggae syncopation into rock with a similar
lack of purpose. It feels like a preppy band that got through college
on drugs and audience indulgence before finding religion. Matisyahu’s
faith is his business, but comparisons to the spirituality of a Bob
Marley — one magazine, hopefully in jest, quizzes readers to
distinguish between the lyrics of the two — are a wee bit premature.
Rolling Stone also trashed Matisyahu. Their conclusion?
[T]he most exceptional
thing about Matisyahu remains the most circumstantial.
Just like today’s Chabad.